A Wing and a Prayer

I thought swallows were the more poetical birds, because I knew more about them.

So when the avian aerial performers of Madrid, the swifts, returned to the canyons between the buildings during the heart of La Cuarentena, when the air still vibrated with sirens, I called them swallows and made everybody come out onto the balcony to watch them.

Somewhere along the way, I became the namer of the family, and the imperfect naturalist. I hand down the names my father, who died a year ago after an unexpected drawn-out and heart-wrenching illness — is there any other kind? — handed me when I was younger than my daughters are now.

Ten years ago, when Eldest was 8 and Younger 5, I decided it was high time they experience a particularly American sort of travel: the packed car, the tedium (and romance) of the days’-long drive. The three of us took five days to drive from Georgia to Texas. At journey’s zenith we floated in the lovely shimmer of a swimming pool ringed by mountains in west Texas, watching swallows as they banked and skimmed the surface of the water and then boomeranged away.

But it turns out there are just as many poems about swifts as there are about swallows, maybe more. Most of them are English. Winifred Owen wrote one, and Ted Hughes, another. On this side of the ocean, the swifts arrive from Africa in March and return there in August. They only alight to nest: everything else about their life happens in the air, on the wing. They fly 70 to 115 miles per hour, at the altitude of small jets.

Irresistible stuff, for writers.

The swifts are here, and then they’re gone. A couple of days ago, after I read Helen Macdonald’s essay about swifts in the New York Times, I walked out onto the terrace and looked up at the sky and realized the swifts that kept us company during lockdown had left. As life returned to normal, I’d forgotten to take time to sit and trace their flight in the dusk poetically called vespertino in Spanish.

Along with being the namer and the naturalist, I’m the family’s planner and packer. Before children, I don’t know if I’d willingly have chosen these duties, but they’re part of the second skin of motherhood, part of the nest we weave to keep our offspring safe.

Last night, I found myself reading over something called “the essential college COVID-19 packing list.” Masks were at the top of that list, a variety of them, N-95s, surgical masks, cloth ones. A “to-go” bag containing among other things a thermometer and oximeter was recommended, in case students find themselves hustled straight from COVID testing to two-week isolation. There were, of course, links to companies from which I could buy every single one of these things.

I carefully wrote them all on my list and then I wondered: how exactly, between the transatlantic flight and the temperature checks and the complicated semi-quarantines and the socially distanced wave to Grandmother and the drives and the drop-off and the constant drumbeat of the news, will we get around to that?

And then, this morning, I woke up, and re-read Macdonald’s essay about swifts. It seemed the wiser course.

And while young martins and swallows return to their nests after their first flights, young swifts do not. As soon as they tip themselves free of the nest hole, they start flying, and they will not stop flying for two or three years, bathing in rain, feeding on airborne insects, winnowing fast and low to scoop fat mouthfuls of water from lakes and rivers.

1 Comment

  1. The Chimney Swifts here are finished nesting, but they have started gathering up into large groups, joined by swifts who are migrating from farther north. While they wait to leave for South America, they will all roost together in open chimneys. At dusk, you can go outside and see groups increase in size and then fly in circles around their roosting site, slowly, one by one, slipping into the chimney until they are all in there together for the night.

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